The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Bone Clocks2014. Random House. ebook. 640 pages.

Review:

In a spasmodic wish to be “current” with my reading, I placed myself on the waitlist for The Bone Clocks ebook through my public library. I knew very little about the novel going in, except that there were multiple narrators like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which I haven’t read), and that the first narrator was a teenage British girl.

That teenaged British girl is Holly Sykes, who has just decided to go live with her much older boyfriend, only to find he’s (no surprise) cheating on her with another underage girl. So she runs away from her town into the countryside. This first section is a masterpiece of first-person narration: Holly’s voice comes through with an indelible, clear personality and with a natural cadence.

If you’ve heard anything about The Bone Clocks, you probably know that it has a sci-fi / fantasy element. This first Holly section has a strong blast of this element: it’s disorienting and suspenseful in execution.

After the first section ended, I was sorry to leave Holly’s point of view and jump into the mind of sociopathic Hugo Lamb (who is apparently a character from a previous Mitchell book). As soon as I got a taste of Lamb’s narration, I was like, “Who is this jerk? Take me back to Holly.” But I soon succumbed to the brilliance of Mitchell’s writing in this section as well, as he captures the milieu of Cambridge and gradually reveals the extent of Lamb’s manipulations. Lamb crosses paths with Holly and it turns out that Holly is the main thread that runs through the novel, growing older through others’ eyes.

Lamb’s section is followed by two more male narrators: a weary war correspondent in 2003, and a misanthropic author who hails from in and around our present day. I found the 2003 section to be moderately tiresome, as the war journalist is prodded to talk about his Iraq experiences by oblivious, obnoxious members of a wedding party. It felt like the author’s views had too strong a presence, overtaking the story at times. The fourth section – with the misanthropic author – is a globe-trotting segment; it took me a while to warm up to this narrator but I eventually did. Throughout the second through fourth sections, the sci-fi / fantasy element blinks in and out, present though not as prolonged as in Holly’s first section.

It is in the fifth section that the sci-fi / fantasy element is thoroughly indulged and explained. I saw that a lot of readers hated this section, and I agree that it is the weakest part of the book. I don’t want to give away all of the book’s secrets, but suffice to say, the story involves two groups of immortal people – some who achieve it through humane, natural ways and some who achieve it through incredibly evil means. The narrator of the fifth section is one of the “good” immortals, whose soul jumps through the ages. I found this concept fascinating. The story of how the narrator found himself in the body of a young Russian peasant girl in the 19th century and had to make his way out of serfdom was compelling.

Unfortunately, the fifth section is also full of exposition, a made-up vocabulary, and a drawn-out supernatural fight scene. I tend to find many fight scenes boring, both in movies and books. I especially have trouble when the combatants have superhuman powers, as they do in Bone Clocks‘ climactic battle. It’s a lot of people throwing each other around using their minds and special hand gestures. I was glad when it was over.

The final section returns us to Holly again, now a grandmother living in a bleak world that is falling into apocalypse. I agree with others that it gets a little preachy here, as characters outline the causes of why the world is collapsing. But, at the same time, aspects felt scarily plausible, and I was heavily invested in the fates of Holly, her family and her neighbors. I could have done without the caricature of the female religious fundamentalist, who comes complete with a loutish, leering son – especially in a book where the sociopath can have a nuanced portrayal and redemptive moment. I find it telling when there is a pattern of who present-day novelists are humanizing and who they are caricaturing. If it’s the same “types” that are getting caricatured over and over, then it starts to veer from interesting critique to dehumanization of a certain group of people.

Anyway, despite that annoyance, I really did like the last chapter a lot, and shed some tears at the end. It’s an ambitious novel, as many other reviewers have said, and perhaps a little messy, but worthwhile. I love the title: “bone clocks” is an evocative metaphor of the ordinary human life, of Holly’s life which is a finite, wondrous thing set in counterpoint to the immortals whose battles and intrigues swirl around her.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Fantasy Book Critic – “Overall, The Bone Clocks is very ambitious and has enough goodies to be a very good book and worth reading, but not the best David Mitchell – especially if it’s not the first novel of the author one reads as the amazing voice versatility is not as astonishing any more – and quite far from the admittedly humongous expectations I had about it.”

S. Krishna’s Books – “When I was at about 500 pages in and there were still almost 150 pages left, I couldn’t help but be in disbelief that I was still reading it. I suppose it’s a warning that this book can seem like a slog at times (but most of the times it moves along well), but it’s worth persevering through those because it really is such a well told book.”

The Speculative Scotsman – ” . . . not all of The Bone Clocks‘ narrators are pleasant people, but they read as real—as do the worlds they inhabit, whether these worlds once were or are the stuff of science fiction—and that’s what matters.”

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10 responses to “The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

  1. encgolsen

    I felt the same way when the point of view switched away from Holly–she was such a great character! Cloud Atlas is my favorite David Mitchell book by far, but I really loved this one as well.

    • Most of the reviews I’ve seen – where the writer has also read Cloud Atlas – they have preferred Cloud Atlas, even when liking The Bone Clocks. Eventually I’ll get around to reading Cloud Atlas!

  2. Nice review. I agree with your opinions about the various sections of the book. What did you think about Holly’s voice throughout the novel? Of course it has to change as she ages and matures, but I would have liked to see a few more hints of the feisty teenager in her towards the end of the book, instead of having her portrayed completely as a wise, zen-like grandmother.

    • I did miss Holly-the-teenager, though the grandmother Holly I thought was also feisty, though hampered by being older. I didn’t find her to be zen, exactly. There was just so much fear underlying that last section of the book.

  3. I’m undecided on whether or not I should read this. It sounds so interesting, but I’m not sure I’d be able to make it through the sloggy parts. Maybe I’ll give it a try later this year if I manage to get a bunch of these other books off my plate 🙂

  4. HM, she said undecidedly. I have a sort of unsourced aversion to David Mitchell (the writer; I naturally adore David Mitchell the comedian) and have been resisting his books for many years. But this also sounds really interesting.

    • Has David Mitchell been obnoxious on the internet or something? I sometimes get mixed up about which famous authors have tweeted something controversial. I was really glad I went for Bone Clocks, especially as I had no particular expectations. Try the first chapter and if that clicks, then it might be worth continuing on.

      I’ve not heard of David Mitchell the comedian. (Or at least I hadn’t known his name – I just googled him and was like, “Oh! That guy!)

  5. I really loved Cloud Atlas, but haven’t been drawn to grab this since it came out. The Tournament of Books gave me a bit of a push, though, and it just came in at the library for me. I have issues with some of the general elements you do, but those also showed up a bit in Cloud Atlas and I was able to push through. Here’s hoping it goes well!

    • Good luck! I think most reviews I read where the person had also read Cloud Atlas, they still preferred Cloud Atlas over Bone Clocks. But apparently Bone Clocks has various characters or allusions to Mitchell’s other books, so veteran readers of Mitchell get a little something extra.

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